Where do you think the World’s Largest Car Restorer is?
When you think of restoring classic cars, you might probably picture some ramshackle garage in the midlands of England, or the heartlands of the USA, maybe even in rural Australia. But the largest restorer of classic cars that employs more than 200 skilled craftsmen in vast hanger-like halls, with classic Jaguars and Rolls-Royces and Mercedes cluttering up the place, is not in any of those places. It is in fact located at an old US Airforce base called Clark Field, part of the Clark Freeport Zone in the Philippines.
Established six years ago, the Byrnes Motor Trust Restoration facility (BMT) is the brainchild of Australian millionaire Jim Byrnes, who decided to base his new business in the Philippines to take advantage of a skilled labour force where the wages are just a fraction of those in the countries where many of the restorations will end up. The cost of car restoration is mostly in the cost of the labour, with some cars taking literally thousands of hours to complete. Where you have skilled labour rates of USD100-150 per hour, the cost of restoration could easily hit more than USD300,000 for a car that may be of much lower value.
Currently, they are working on some 400 restoration projects, with the majority being classic British marques such as MGs, Jaguars and Rolls-Royces, but there are also Porsches and Mercedes on the line. Famously, Byrnes bought some 37 rusted-out Jaguars on one trip to Texas, from which BMT has managed to reconstruct five pristine restorations. But Byrnes doesn’t restrict himself to scouring junkyards alone. He is also currently in talks with the legendary Carroll Shelby International about building 50 Trans-Am Boss Mustang replicas.
The plant employs mostly Filipinos, most of who are self-taught craftsmen and 43 who are women, working as mechanics to metal workers, and of course upholsterers. Jim Byrnes describes them as having an amazing eye for detail and passion for the projects. To ensure that the standards are of international calibre, the team is headed up by Californian Jason Lamberg who has twice won “best in class” for his restorations at Pebble Beach, and he is assisted by two Brits, Michael Harrison in special projects, and Carl Holland, in the paint shop.
If you haven’t heard of BMT before, then it is not surprising as to date they have only worked on in-house projects as they learned the business, focusing on their own stock of rusting classics. Now, though, they are ready to start taking on projects for customers, although, according to Byrnes, this will only be for major collectors whose judgement they can trust.
In the long term, Byrnes is eyeing the Chinese market for many of the restorations they complete, and of course the Philippines is just a hop, skip and jump away from the world’s largest car market. Although Byrnes has the reputation for being a tough business man back in his home country of Australia, the number of cars thus far produced by BMT is low, but this doesn’t seem to worry him that much. To put it simply, Byrnes is viewing this business in a global sense, using the tax-free low-cost manufacturing facility to be able to buy in countries where scrap cars are cheap, and sell in those where restored cars command a premium.